Thai PM’s Comments Spark Outrage [-Samak “insensitive, inflammatory and plainly inaccurate” statement criticized]
A member of a Thai political faction strikes at the lifeless body of a hanged student outside Thammasat University in Bangkok in this Oct. 6, 1976 file photo. Police stormed the university after students demanded expulsion of a former military ruler and barricaded themselves in the school. Haunted by his past, Samak Sundaravej has sparked an unprecedented debate on his alleged role in a massacre of student protesters three decades ago. Defying photographic evidence and witnesses’ accounts of the carnage of Oct. 6, 1976, Samak said during an interview with CNN that “one unlucky guy” was killed that day. (AP Photo/Neal Ulevich, File)
By AMBIKA AHUJA
Less than two weeks, as it turns out.
The trigger for the uproar was a CNN interview that touched on a massacre of Thai student protesters in 1976.
Samak denied having any role in the carnage and claimed that only one person died that day — even though by Thailand’s own official count the death toll was 46 and some put it in the hundreds.
“No deaths, one unlucky guy being beaten and being burned,” Samak said. “Only one guy died that day.”
Violence was unleashed that day on leftist student demonstrators gathered to protest the return from exile of Prime Minister Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, one of a dictatorial triumvirate who had been ousted by a student-led uprising three years earlier.
Film and photos from the time showed security forces and right-wing paramilitary troops firing weapons into the campus of Bangkok’s Thammasat University; protesters being shot, beaten, set ablaze; bodies mutilated and dragged around a football field.
Samak’s dismissal of one of the country’s most traumatic events sparked public outrage and intense soul-searching. It spotlighted a subject that has until now been all but taboo. A blanket amnesty shielded the perpetrators, and a later government had honored Thanom.
Thai democracy has always had an uneasy relationship with the military. Samak’s own premiership marks the return of elected government after yet another coup and a 16-month spell of military rule.
“How many people in Thailand actually know about what happened then? It’s not even in the history textbooks in our school curriculum,” said historian Charnvit Kasetsiri, a former rector of the university attacked in 1973. “The ruling elite want it forgotten because it goes against the mainstream conservatism that is preferred in Thailand.”
Newspapers have seized on the massacre to criticize Samak, and his remarks have been raised repeatedly in parliament.
They were “insensitive, inflammatory and plainly inaccurate,” the English-language Bangkok Post commented. Samak “knows very well what went on because he played a key role.”
Critics say Samak’s anti-communist rhetoric on radio and at rallies at the time helped stoke a violent anti-left atmosphere against a backdrop of communist takeovers of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In a polarized Thailand, the critics say, the hard right’s motto was “It’s no sin to kill communists.”
As interior minister following the incident, Samak is said to have had hundreds of “leftists” arrested. But he insists he had nothing to do with the massacre, and argues that if he had blood on his hands, he wouldn’t be a vote-winner today.
Analysts said Samak’s controversial remarks could cost him allies.
“It has become a hot issue that might be a rallying point, bringing his current political allies and his opposition together,” said Kanokrat Lertchoesakul, a professor at Chulalongkorn University. “It’s an emotional issue for many people across today’s political spectrum.”
Chaturon Chaisaeng, a senior politician and Samak’s supporter, is among many contemporary politicians who were leftist student leaders in 1976. On Saturday, Chaturon said Samak “should gather accurate information before speaking” about the incident.
After the massacre, Thanom remained in Thailand following his return to the country as a Buddhist monk. In 1999 Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, himself a democrat with a long history of fighting dictatorships, signed off on a state honor for Thanom, sparking a controversy at the time.
Neither Thanom nor his two former ruling partners resumed any political role.
Thanom also tried to rehabilitate his image, arguing that he was not responsible for the Oct. 6 violence.
When the field marshal died in 2004, he was cremated in a royally sponsored ceremony presided over by Queen Sirikit.
One result of the new prime minister’s remarks, said historian Charnvit, is that it gives Thais an opportunity to re-examine “a traumatic history that hasn’t healed,” and may force the guilty to answer for their crimes.